Academic Vocabulary: Semantics Matter

Semantics MatterWhen I worked with a diverse student population I was fortunate to learn SIOP (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol) strategies. Designed to support English language learners, these strategies are great for all students.

There is a crossover with these strategies that also leads into formative assessment (and we’ll save that for another time). Right now I wanted to focus on vocabulary, and as academic vocabulary is a support for the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), it requires students to learn new words for both familiar and unfamiliar concepts.

In SIOP, I learned about three kinds of vocabulary: academic, social and home (cultural). One aspect of academic vocabulary that really resonated with me was that of multiple meaning words, and part of that resonating was the connection those words have to assessment. Here’s an example of a multiple meaning word – power. How many different definitions and examples can you give for that one word? If we look from the 3 perspectives above:

+ Academic – exponents in math, electricity in science
+ Social – someone who leads or is strong
+ Home – Power Rangers, if the lights go out

And that is not all… Just to get you thinking, here are a few other examples of multiple meaning words for you to consider: state, star, link, pop and match.

Another aspect of academic vocabulary is that of cognitive verbs. Those verbs used in the CCSS to tell us how students should be thinking (processing) about a topic. These cognitive verbs are important for two reasons. First, in order to have a good understanding of the CCSS, both teachers and students need to know and use these verbs. Students need practice in the “doing” of the cognitive tasks identified in the CCSS. Second, the cognitive verbs also frequently serve as the vocabulary of assessments. Think about these cognitive verbs:

+ Compile
+ Link
+ Match
+ Label
+ Diagnose
+ Estimate
+ Convert
+ State

Which have you used or seen used on an assessment? The use of a word wall, perhaps color-coded by topic is one way (formative assessment) to support students in building their academic vocabulary.

Building students’ academic vocabulary is a critical piece in the puzzle of success with the Common Core. Being aware of and specifically teaching multiple meaning words and assessment vocabulary supports students’ success. But wait, increasing a student’s vocabulary to help them better understand what they are learning (learning target), what they are doing to learn (cognitive verbs) and how they will be asked to demonstrate that learning (assessment vocabulary) will all ultimately help them achieve more.

What are some of the cognitive verbs, assessment terms or multiple meaning words you use daily?